The bath in the basement takes two back-breaking hours to clean, during which the innkeeper had the gall to poke his nose in and ask if I need any help. No sir, your fine establishment is unique in its offering that the guests get to clean out the bath themselves, and it would be remiss for me not to thoroughly partake in what is bound to be your most popular tourist attraction. By the way, why is your inn doing so poorly? Oh, the state of the economy, but of course.
After that it’s off to the kitchen, where two cooks (both older than my grandad) plus the stable boy are trying frantically to cook for the thirty Ink Scouts Arkai had brought with him.
The folks that run the inn have no idea who they’re playing host to, or why all these dangerous-looking men have dropped in, but they know an esquire when they see one. Hence no one pays any mind as I stroll in, fire up a stove, and grab an armful of vegetables from the pantry.
Just another little person, going about his business.
Haylis barges in during my attempt to make a stew and a stir fry at the same time, then, instead of helping, starts talking about how she’s being given the run-around as if – shocking – esquires are supposed to be constantly working. The sentence ‘I didn’t sign the stupid contract’ comes up twice a minute, and despite all the banging and shouting (that’s a kitchen for you) she just keeps on talking and talking and talking.
‘…and the minute I sit down he tells me to go pick up sandals! Where am I supposed to get those this time of the year? And what kind of dragon slayer wears sandals? If I’d known he was coming I’d never have come along in the first place. He orders me around as if I’ve signed the stupid contract –’
‘Why did you come along?’ I yell at her above the browning onions.
‘I mean I…I’d understand if you don’t want to keep going anymore.’
‘Are you kidding? Aunt Kath needs me. I know the little giants.’
‘I KNOW THE LITTLE GIANTS.’
‘Yeah I heard you, but what?!’
‘I speak their language and my family owns a third of their coach business.’
That’s…probably the least surprising reason she could have given. We’ll have to hire one of their coaches sooner or later; it’s simply the fastest way to get around. Striking a bargain with the little giants is…shall we say demanding on communication?
There’s a quirk to learning their language, you see, one that stops most people from trying: one must be born with the ability to hear low pitches, and by low I mean really, really low, not even rumble-in-the-ground kind of low but one that shakes bones and makes teeth clatter.
Can’t read, but knows the most difficult language in the world. Who knew?
‘I find your surprise offensive,’ she says.
‘No it’s…it’s actually the most sensible thing I’ve heard in a while.’
‘Alright then. So why are you here?’
That’s where the conversation breaks off, because there’s not a single reason I could come up with.
Kathanhiel certainly doesn’t need help with fighting – even fifty trained assassins couldn’t put a scratch on her. Despite the severity of her current condition, she’s perfectly capable of moving around, so it’s not as if my assistance is critical to her survival. What else? I guess she did need someone else to clean the baths; somehow the hero of the Realms scrubbing the tiles just doesn’t sit right.
Maybe that’s why it had to be me. I make a good servant.
That’s not a job for the Lions of the Marches, or the Queen’s shieldmaiden. This work is only right for someone like me.
Someone useless and small like me.
‘Kastor? Kastor! The stew!’
Bubbling liquid is very effective at breaking trances. So are boils.
Kathanhiel intervenes when Arkai tries to make us stand while they eat (us being Haylis and I, of course).
‘They’re not servants. I’ll not have you treat them as such.’
If only I could reciprocate this feeling of empowerment in the things I do for her…but, heh, empower her? Better to have a frog teach a swan how to fly. It’s the perfect fairytale: frog teaches swan, swan proceeds to laugh at frog as she carries him all around the world, frog becomes depressed and sad, the end.
What am I even thinking about here? This is way beyond being distracted.
Arkai’s eyes constantly scan the room and never linger in one place for more than a second…unless that place is Kathanhiel. She’s wearing proper clothes now, the fever supressed after two doses of that green liquid, but that doesn’t mean the eyeing doesn’t tick me off. Stop looking at her you prick. Wait, don’t look at me either. When is he going to leave?
By the time the plates are cleaned night has already fallen. The esquire of Kathanhiel, he whom half the women in town would happily want to sleep with, had spent the day scrubbing things…but now it’s finally time for serious business.
Arkai goes to stand by the door as Kathanhiel lights up a roll of incense and beckons us over.
‘The urgency our quest is now such that there can be no more delay. We will leave at first light and ride for the enclave of the little giants. I aim to be on their coach and moving by midday.’
She takes out a stack of sealed letters and hands them to me. ‘Have the stable boy deliver these after we leave. One of these is a receipt for your salary, for all I have left at hand are gold pieces and not enough crowns for your pay. Your family can use it to claim the appropriate amount from the treasury. I hope this is acceptable.’
‘Of course my lady. I’m – I’m the one who spent all your money on the ice. If I’d known you’d be getting a tonic from master Arkai –’
‘The suppressant is very harsh medicine, one that puts us back on the road at a cost. If I had the luxury of healing naturally I would, but we’ve not the time, not anymore.’
She’s combing her hair, rubbing the chrysanthemum oil on her face, and talking to us at the same time; there’s no doubt she’ll look perfect tomorrow, same as ever.
‘Kastor, are you paying attention?’
‘Yes my lady.’
‘You too Haylis.’
‘Yes Aunt Kath.’
‘The dragon brood is moving as we speak. Hunting packs have been spotted at the Ford, a mere week from here. Their behaviour has shifted to the systematic destruction of our defences, and tens of thousands are being displaced by fear alone. Elisaad, who in his madness knew only to burn and raze, couldn’t have managed this, so it is my strong suspicion that Rutherford is much more powerful than his predecessor.’
All of a sudden it’s become very hard to swallow.
‘We must reach Fort Iborus before it is overrun. The fortress exist for the sole purpose of drawing the dragons’ attention so that the lands to its south are protected, and it must continue to do this while we seek out Rutherford. I shudder to imagine what the place looks like now, surrounded by the brood…’
‘The Mirror Phalanx will hold,’ Arkai speaks up, ‘if only because we’ve pulled everyone back, highway patrols included. It’ll be several months before the King sends reinforcements.’
Kathanhiel scoffs. ‘Reinforcements? Kindling they are, with no training and ill equipment. For years I’ve petitioned for…but I digress. The focus must now be on what we can do.’
‘The coach of the little giants can get us to Iborus in under two weeks…but only if we take the highway, which as Arkai said is no longer under our control. Taking a ferry from the Ford is still our best option, but if pressed the dragons will assault us on the river anyway, and they’ll find us riding a treacherous current on a wooden hull.’
Kathanhiel pauses for a moment to grab Kaishen from beside her bed. The sword is sheathed now, but ever since that night I could swear it’s never stopped glowing; every time I look there seems to be a reddish aura around it.
‘I have come up with a compromise. We shall begin on the coach, and once the dragons inevitably find us, we part ways. I shall draw the brood’s attention while you two exit the highway discreetly and go to the Ford. Once they’re onto my scent their priorities will change – this I know for certain – and a boat moving upriver will be the least of their concerns. By the time you reach Iborus I should already have the fortress secured.’
Haylis opens up her mouth before I open mine, but Kathanhiel raises a hand. ‘I shall be forthcoming. I can defend myself more ably if I’m alone, while the ferry makes up for its lack of speed with discretion and safety. If your argument does not consider these facts and involves only sentiment then I shan’t hear it.’
‘Why do you want us to at all, if we’re just burdens?’
The question came out all by itself. It wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t just suggest taking on the brood all alone; no one is capable of that, not even the greatest dragon slayer of our age. She knows full well they number in the thousands, and she is but one – so why?
She looks at me the way a mother would a son that keeps trying to impress her and failing. ‘It is imperative that you survive, Kastor. You’re critical to the defeat of Rutherford.’
Why? Why do you need me? Stop ignoring the question every time I ask. It’s almost as if you don’t want to tell me, and the only possible reason for that is because you don’t expect me to understand – otherwise you would trust me with the information, wouldn’t you?
Do you know how much it hurts to be so inadequate that you can’t even earn the trust of the one you love?
‘I’ll do as you say but…but…’
But what? But you won’t follow her orders if she doesn’t do what you want? Don’t be ridiculous. What argument were you going to make? That somehow you, with your abyssal swordsmanship, can help Kathanhiel and Kaishen, the fire-spitting sword that incinerated fifty-odd people in five minutes?
‘It is not the place of an esquire to question, only to follow,’ says Arkai.
I want to tell him to shut his mouth but of course I just stay silent.
Haylis speaks up, ‘I’m staying on the coach with you. It’s the only place I’ll be useful.’
‘I told you –’
‘And I told you, Aunt Kath, on the first day of the tests, that I come and go as I please and you don’t get to decide for me. I’m staying with you.’
‘Haylis, dear, don’t be stubborn. Now’s not a good time.’
Her chair tips over. Haylis gets up all red-faced.
‘I know you don’t like me, but can’t you at least pretend the way he pretends?’ She points at me. ‘Kastor is an idiot but at least he makes an effort. You…you don’t make an effort at all. Can’t you tell that I care about you just as much? What am I doing here if you just want me to go away and take a stupid boat?’
‘I know I’ve messed up, Aunt Kath,’ she adds quietly, ‘but I can do better. Otherwise I wouldn’t still be here.’
The room lengthens as the two women look at each other. It’s only been a week since we started on the road.
Sorry I’ve been so rude to you Haylis. Don’t think I’ll ever get over the nose picking and the constant jibes and the idiotic way you talk and the…but I shan’t make fun of you inside my head anymore.
Kathanhiel’s eyes shift to her lap. ‘You’re right, you didn’t sign the contract so I’ve no right to…alright, if you wish you can stay on the coach. Arkai, may I still count on you?’
Arkai replies, not because he wants to but because Kathanhiel is the one asking, ‘though I don’t know why I should bother, I shall see to Kastor’s safety aboard the ferry.’
‘Then it is settled. Go to bed, both of you. We’ve a long journey ahead.’